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Modi Transforms From Person Non Grata To Celebrated White House Guest


India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is visiting New York and Washington, but his official reception is low-key. President Obama's dinner for Modi tonight at the White House is private. NPR's Julie McCarthy tells us Modi hopes to draw the two nations closer and that the unofficial part of his trip started off with a love fest.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has been a remarkable journey. He has gone from being persona non grata, unwelcomed on U.S. soil, to celebrated guest summating at the White House. For nearly a decade, the U.S. denied Modi a visa over allegations he conspired in religious riots that killed mostly Muslims in the Indian State of Gujurat in 2002. The charge was not proven, and Modi's arrival in New York City had the ring of a victory lap.


CROWD: (Chanting) Modi, Modi, Modi.

MCCARTHY: Shouting Modi, Modi, his fans from the Indian-American community packed the venue where John Lennon played his last concert and where Mohammed Ali first fought Joe Frazier. Rare is the foreign dignitary who could fill Madison Square Garden. Speaking Hindi, Modi told the 18,000 guests...



MCCARTHY: Respect for India has grown because of you. You've done wonders in the field of information technology. The world no longer sees us as a nation of snake charmers. Now we handle the mouse, Modi said. But despite the euphoria in Modi's rock-star welcome, the first one-on-one meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi is more likely to break the ice than it is to break any new ground.

ALAN KRUEGER: I think first and foremost it would be helpful to see a fresh start in India-U.S. relations, kind of a resetting of the clock.

MCCARTHY: That Alan Krueger, Princeton economics professor and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama. Krueger says that Modi is meeting today with Wall Street bankers and corporate leaders to say India is open for business. Modi is trying to streamline India's notorious bureaucracy and improve the climate for foreign investment, but Krueger says American business leaders are cautious. The World Bank index that ranks ease of doing business puts India at 134 out of 189 countries. Krueger says Modi will have to fight on many fronts to make the economy more competitive.

KRUEGER: India is tremendously inefficient. They could be a much more productive economy. And there's also too much corruption, which is I think related to the inefficiency that they have. India's education system is woefully inadequate; illiteracy rates are too high, especially among women.

MCCARTHY: Former senior diplomat G. Parthasarathy says the U.S. and India must broaden the scope of their relationship. He says there should be transfers of technology but says that the U.S. approach had been, what's in it for us?

G. PARTHASARATHY: It had become transactional, let's be frank.

MCCARTHY: He says in the last few years, India has become the leading importer of American defense equipment - $9 billion worth and more in the pipeline.

PARTHASARATHY: Now, I don't think that sort of a transactional relationship is enough to keep two democracies going - two vibrant democracies going. So I think it has to get into a wider matrix which get back to basic issues of education, health and economic cooperation.

MCCARTHY: But security has become an overarching issue. A senior Obama administration official said, with respect to the U.S. rebalance to Asia, India has a strong role to play. And professor of U.S. studies, K.P. Vijayalakshmi, says the focus now is to keep the sea lanes open and maintain a balance of power in the region.

K.P. VIJAYALAKSHMI: So that there is a stop for Chinese assertive behavior in this region. So that's the point - meeting point, and the area is of course in the Pacific.

MCCARTHY: And in fact, the U.S. and India have conducted dozens of joint military exercises in recent years. As Modi sits down to dinner with President Obama tonight, the talk will be about much more than business. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.